A belligerent, gloriously profane ode to how much work sucks, Kevin Smith’s Clerks is about the fine art of working a shitty job. In this day and age of social media embellishment where everyone’s tweet or Facebook post pertains to the greatest day ever, watching this 1994 comedy is like a blast from the cooler.
The story behind Clerks is well-documented. Smith made it for under $28,000 and shot it at the convenience store where he worked. The shoot took about 21 days and it feels like renegade movie-making, with the blistering screenplay structured around The Divine Comedy and embodying the ever-rising flames of hell and the “backward path” of workaday reality.
Brian O’Halloran stars as Dante Hicks, a 22-year-old convenience store worker. He’s supposed to be off, but he’s called into work to cover for a sick coworker. The boss claims he’ll be off after a few hours, so Dante reluctantly heads down to open the Quick Stop. His day moves through a succession of customers, many of whom are absolutely bizarre.
Randal (Jeff Anderson) is his pal. He works at the video store next door, where he generally hates all the customers. He frequents the convenience store and chats with Dante throughout the day. Dante’s girlfriend (Marilyn Ghigliotti) pops by. There’s an impromptu hockey game on the roof. The lads get away for a wake. Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) hang around outside.
Clerks works because it understands what happens at an actual job. Life goes on. People pop in and visit and the nightmare of coping with customers is like a never-ending siege on all things decent. Sometimes there are slices of heaven in a square of lasagna. Sometimes someone dies in the can. And sometimes, an ex-girlfriend (Lisa Spoonhauer) is looking pretty hot all over again.
Smith and cinematographer David Klein put the audience in the world of Dante and Randal and allow the characters to dance their way through purgatory. The camera works over the line of ridiculous customers, like the guy who counts eggs (Walt Flanagan) or the gum representative (Scott Schiaffo) who tries to dissuade people from smoking and starts a near riot.
Clerks is a symphony of the irreverent and Smith’s script makes profanity into an art form. The picture was initially tapped with the NC-17 rating by those bastards at the MPAA on the basis of foul language alone and that’s kind of a badge of honour. There’s an anarchic energy to how Dante and Randal navigate the whimsies of existence, plus there’s a dead guy waiting for one last chance.
Smith’s movie is terrific because it accomplishes a sense of place and a sense of character without crawling up its own ass. It captures the minutiae of conversation, the boring bliss of passing the time while going over the finer points of Star Wars. It remembers what it was like to hate people and it understands that sometimes misanthropy is the only way to deal with a clueless VHS renter.
But it also speaks to life outside of work. Randal’s distinction is clear: title does not dictate behaviour. While modern times may suggest that a person could get fired from a job at a chocolate shop for retweeting scraps from the “wrong” account, there’s still something honest and true about the recognition that sometimes a job is just a fucking job.
And it’s hard not to feel a kinship with Dante, who enters his torment full in the knowledge that he’s not even supposed to be there. The day was supposed to be different, it was supposed to be better. He wasn’t supposed to get fined. He wasn’t supposed to get chased out of a wake. He was supposed to play hockey at two like a level-headed person and get on with the business of being.
Work has a way of changing that. It has a way of insisting and there’s harmony in that. Finding moments of ecstasy means pushing past Hell, eking through Purgatory and moving up the stairs to Paradise. And while Smith may not explicitly suggest “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars,” Clerks at least seems to understand heaven as that special feeling that comes with finally hanging the closing sign.